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Thursday, January 25, 2018

The Great Concept Album Horror Vol. 2: Roger Waters - Radio K.A.O.S.

When you talk about concept albums in general, there are two names that are going to come up right off the bat: Pete Townshend and Roger Waters.  Townshend practically created the genre with The Who’s Tommy: A Rock Opera.  It blew minds in its day because it was the first of its kind; a rock musical that was both cohesive in story and in musical flow.   We’ll talk about him more in a later post but for now, let’s talk about Waters.

If you  don’t know him by name, you still know his music.  It has been inescapable on rock radio over the last 30 years.  "Another Brick in the Wall (part 2)”, “Money” or “Comfortably Numb” are all hit songs by the band Pink Floyd that he either wrote or co-wrote and he sings on all three.  

Pink Floyd had been doing concept albums for years.  Instead of focusing on narrative cohesion though, they looked to unifying concepts and produced way more winners than losers.  Their album Dark Side of the Moon is actually a concept album about fear, documenting all of the anxiety points a human adult contends with in life.  The album Animals was a concept album that focused on class in 1970’s England.  These are both amazing records. 

The Wall changed the game though.  It told a very vivid story about a rocker who was facing a mental breakdown.  It took you through his troubled childhood and into his mind as paranoia, suspicion and guilt overwhelm him.  It was so well done, in fact, that the Hollywood film simply put images to the album.  Why rewrite something when it's already perfect?    

To say The Wall was a smash success would be like saying the surface of the sun is kind of hot.  It was freaking world shaking.  It catapulted Pink Floyd into the stratosphere in terms of popularity.  Up until this point, the band had been fairly democratic, but since this album had Waters' name on almost every song, he began referring to himself as the band's leader.  The rest of the band did not take kindly to this. 

Here's where you have to start asking yourself whether Roger Waters is a genius musician or a frustrated author.  Following The Wall, Waters insisted on using the leftover songs from those sessions to craft another concept album.  It was to be sort of an epilogue to The Wall and despite his bandmates' objections (notably David Gilmour who said, "If they weren't good enough for that record why are they good enough for this one?") Waters forced Pink Floyd to release The Final Cut.  Before the band even started touring, they'd already broken up, agreeing to go their separate ways after the last scheduled date.  

Waters was already making solo plans.  He'd had another idea for a concept album.  This one also reached back to those days prior to his writing The Wall.  It was called The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking and it was supposed to be a collection of thoughts our protagonist has as he makes a cross country road trip.  It wasn’t a great album, but it was generally reviewed well and in the absence of new Pink Floyd material, fans took a chance on it.  There weren't really any singles for radio or MTV to latch on to, but Waters hadn’t embarrassed himself.  Instead, by his reckoning, he'd set himself up to knock the next album out of the park.  He was motivated by a few things.  First, he wanted to make a statement about nuclear war and the dangers civilization was facing.  Second, he wanted to discuss unemployment in Thatchers' Britain.  Finally, and more importantly to him, he wanted to prove to the world that he was the creative force behind Pink Floyd.

This last piece was important because the rest of the band had decided to get back together without him.  They'd all realized that they enjoyed playing music together, just not when Waters was involved.  He had sued them in an effort to keep them from using the Pink Floyd name but ultimately, he'd been unsuccessful.  So for Waters, this next album needed to be the statement that showed everyone who the real creative genius in that band was.

Just like KISS' Music From The Elder, Waters created his album in a vacuum.  With only a couple of people he trusted to bounce ideas off of and co-write certain songs, Waters began crafting a story that he foresaw becoming another movie, a massive stage show and hopefully, a unifying message to the world to lay down their arms.

Thus we get Radio K.A.O.S.

It tells the story of a wheelchair bound man who is considered a vegetable.  The thing is, mentally he's alive.  He can hear radio waves in his head and thanks to a cordless phone his brother steals, he learns to hack into computer systems with his mind.  He uses this ability to trick the world into thinking nukes have been launched and then when everyone is shitting themselves with fear, he reveals the truth.  In the end, everyone laughs and starts getting along together better.  Also there's a side story about coal miners getting laid off their jobs.

I'm not joking.  That, in a nutshell, is the narrative behind this concept album.

Now, some would say that this is no more implausible than The Who's Tommy and they would be right but Tommy had great songs.  Radio K.A.O.S. does not.   Additionally, Waters realized that releasing a double album would mean he wouldn't make as much off of each record sold.  So, he made the very capitalist decision to shorten the whole thing to a single disc.  That decision completely gutted the story so that when one listens to the album, it's hard to follow what's happening. 

To make up for it, Radio K.A.O.S. was shipped with extensive liner notes so that the listener could follow along.  When I say "extensive", they read like a freakin' book.  

Personally, I've never enjoyed having to read along while listening to music and it turns out that most people feel the same way.  Radio K.A.O.S. was a commercial failure.

Unfortunately for Waters, his former bandmates also released their Pink Floyd album around the same time and in head to head competition, Water's lost resoundingly.  While his first single ("Radio Waves") charted in both the U.S. and U.K., subsequent singles weren't as successful.  Meanwhile, Pink Floyd's first two singles from their A Momentary Lapse of Reason album topped the U.S. rock charts for weeks.  

"But what about the tour?" you ask.

That's a good question and it was the true bright spot in this endeavor.  Waters' idea for the tour was very ambitious and involved interactive moments where a live D.J. took questions from the audience which Waters answered.  The story was more fleshed out live and the production was elaborate.  Going to see the Radio K.A.O.S. tour was an experience, not just a rock show.  Unfortunately, with the album tanking, the tour didn't generate much excitement.  Ticket sales were modest at best and after a two month U.S. tour, Waters canceled the rest of the shows except for two nights in London.  He had actually dipped into his own personal finances to keep it going that long.   

Now, one of the weirdest things about this whole debacle has to do with a hidden message on the album.  Waters hid verses via Morse code at the beginning and ending of the record.  One of them gives some oddly mysterious insight into why Waters came up with this particular story.  The translation (from Wikipedia):

Now the past is over but you are not alone 
Together we'll fight Sylvester Stallone 
We will not be dragged down in his South China Sea 
Of macho bullshit and mediocrity

That's right.  Waters had a beef with Rambo and produced one of the worst concept albums of all time as a result.

Ultimately, the failure of Radio K.A.O.S. did nothing to deter him from continuing the concept album trend.  In fact, every release since has been a concept album, although none as overtly narrative as that one.  His next studio album, 1992's Amused to Death, was an anti-war rock opera, which to be fair is a pretty good album.  

His latest is 2017's Is This The Life We Really Want? which, while not a narrative concept album, is united by its political subject matter, directly addressing Brexit and the rise of Trump's America.  It's honestly the best work he's done outside of Pink Floyd and it was in pretty heavy rotation on the Christopher iPod at the end of last year.

You don't care about that though.  I can tell.  You want to hear the horrible stuff, don't you?  Well, if you insist.

The link above will play you the entire album from front to back.  Try to follow the story if you can.  After it's over, try to remember the chorus to any song other than the lead off track "Radio Waves".  It'll be harder than you think.


Lisanne Harrington said...

Never was in to Pink Floyd. Never saw The Wall. In fact, Dark Side of the Moon is the only song I recognize as theirs.

But the biographical stuff about Waters was interesting. What a egomaniac. No wonder Pink Floyd wanted to continue without him!

Looking forward to hearing more about The Who. Wasn't really into them much, either, but I do like their music.

Cary said...

The Who will be a fun one because Pete Townshend really is a frustrated author. He wrote a book of short stories I used to have and he worked for a British publishing house for years after The Who broke up. The thing is that nine times out of ten, he's pulled off the concept album trick and even when he hasn't, there have been great songs to take your mind off the fact that you couldn't follow the story. However, there is one pretty horrendous album in there and it's got a really weird back story that's kind of "icky" for lack of a better term.

As for Waters and Pink Floyd, the animosity between all of them is so bad that even reuniting them for a charity even (Live 8) a few years back took massive effort. They played four or five songs together for the first time in something like 30 years and then afterward, the rest of the band refused to even remotely entertain the idea of working with Waters again. By all accounts, he's an ass to be around.